A Grotesquely Beautiful Critique on Violence Entertainment
Hotline Miami wants you to hurt people.
With its oversaturated neon colors aesthetic and ambient synth rock, Dennaton Games title wants you to think of violent action flicks such as Scarface and Drive, films rebelling against their own perceived places in the world with blood, guns and brutality. It’s 1989, a time of VHS cassettes and answering machines. When you check yours, you’re given a cryptic message with a location and a time. You’re going there to kill everyone.
You put on your animal mask at the beginning of every mission but you’ll wear many before the game is over. While primarily a dual stick shooter, the gameplay is flexible for many different weapon types and allows you to throw each one to incapacitate enemies and follow up with a graphic execution. Coupled with levels that are designed to be puzzled out with several routes that you can tackle as you see fit, the intense combat system can be as deep and dynamic as you wish. In fact, the gameplay rewards a varied play style and combo multipliers for successive kills. You quickly figure out how to move as all the mechanics work as one and you start killing with ease and racking up massive points.
You get swept along in the rhythm of the music, in the noise of the weapons until some primitive part of your brain takes over and your actions become automatic. M.O.O.N.’s ‘Hydrogen’ is the perfect example, a fast-paced aural stabbing with heavy buildup that could be the soundtrack for a bank heist. All the tracks are jungle beats in a steel world, the tribal sounds propelling you forward. You become detached from the simple act of killing as the screen undulates like a wave back and forth until conscious thought recedes. It’s hypnotic. And when you die, the load is immediate, the music unbroken and the blood lust uninterrupted. You die over and over but just keep coming and coming.
It turns you into a beast.
Then the music stops and the spell shatters. You’re no longer an animal but a man standing over the bodies of those you’ve murdered. They haven’t disappeared like a game and the scene doesn’t cut away like a movie. It’s just you and the dead in rooms sprayed with blood, bone and brain. You ask yourself questions that only videogames can inspire: Why did I do this? Who are the people leaving the messages on my phone? Will it ever stop? The questions swirl in your head but you need to escape from them all. You run through doors and down stairs but the bodies remain where they fell, as they died. They are monuments to your savagery. You go about your life, go to the store and rent movies. You’re a normal person. Then you get another message on your answering machine and the death starts anew.
You get good at killing.
You find the girl on one of the missions. Strung out and near dead, you carry her through the bloody wreckage of the building where she was held captive. You take her home and care for her; she regains her strength and becomes a part of your life. The pizza boxes and trash disappear and your apartment becomes a home, one the two of you share together. Saving her is the only heroic thing you do.
But as your life gets better the world around you begins to crumble. The violence is spreading into the streets making the world a bloodier, uglier place as if there was no alternative. That’s Hotline Miami’s greatest feat- making you aware that violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is alive and infecting everyone. As it did you.
Because for as much as Hotline presents itself as a movie, it knows it’s not one. You are in control of your actions. You killed and died with every bullet, every stab became more lost. But since games require player input to progress, the violence would have stopped if you had. That’s true for every videogame even if the mask you wear in them is different. The game isn’t glorifying violence but asking why anything would. Hotline Miami wants you to look at your actions and question your moves, not become detached from them. It wants you to stop and realize how much death you’ve caused while playing videogames. So it asks a question:
‘Do you like hurting other people?’